Traffic Commissioners’ report: still room for improvement

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Part of the OTC’s plans for the year ahead include changing the way bus service punctuality is monitored, as at present the number of cases brought forward is ‘extremely low.’ RICHARD SHARMAN

The 2019 report shows a number of targets not met, though progress has been made, and identifies common issues around the country

The 2019 report from the Office of the Traffic Commissioners (OTC) has been released, outlining its progress with strategic objectives and its future plans, alongside reports from each region’s Traffic Commissioner (TC).

Strategic objectives 2016-2019
The OTC did not meet its target of reduced waiting times for compliant transport businesses, with an average of over 13 weeks to determine applications for PSV licences. However, for complete applications using digital services and meeting all statutory requirements at the first time of asking, it took less than 32 days on average – just over six weeks.

The target for digital applications (70%) was exceeded, with 82.91% being made online.

A target time of listing Public Inquiries (PIs) within 12 weeks of a case being called by a TC in 95% of cases was not met, with the figure standing at 91.6%. However, the result across all but one office was 98.6%.

“Unfortunately, the remaining office faced considerable challenges during the year, including staff departures and recurring recruitment issues,” the report said. It noted that in the first two months of 2019/2020, 99.3% of public inquiries have been listed within 12 weeks.

On the topic of effective use of regulation, a draft high-level report received by the OTC in March 2019 suggests that, for the period analysed, operators who attended a PI (and kept their licence) improved their compliance rate to align with the majority of other operators.

“In effect, where we identify that an operator can be trusted to continue operating after a PI, this generally results in safer practices,” the report said.

Strategic plans to 2021
The report highlighted strategic objectives to make sure the regime which licences operators is modern and effective while reducing the impact of regulation on compliant operators, and promoting safe road transport operations while highlighting the value of compliance, maintaining fairness and protecting the environment.

A new set of measures for the period from 2019 to 2021 focuses on several themes, taking into consideration proposals for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. This will involve the OTC reviewing its guidance, updating statutory documents, supporting the development of legislation and case law during any transition period, supporting the development of any Tribunal Rules and establishing a single point of contact within the OTC for issues relating to exiting the EU.

Another objective is to support responsible businesses. A key part of this is transforming the OTC IT system to make engagements with the OTC digital.

“At the time of writing this report, licence applicants and operators can now perform every major transaction online, without needing to use a single piece of paper or sign a form by hand,” the report said.

“We are proud of the achievements of the online licensing service, especially as digital technology allows us even greater insight into the performance of the support services provided to us, for instance in the processing of licence applications. We now publish the average time it takes to make decisions on applications for O-licences.

“This measure gives industry full transparency, because every case is counted.”

The OTC said it wants to reduce the time taken to make decisions on new and major variation applications to an average of 35 working days. It also aims to ensure that from 1 October 2019, no application will remain outstanding for more than six months after the date it was received – where the delay is in the control of the OTC.

The OTC admitted that the volume of bus punctuality and reliability cases it sees remains extremely low, partly as a consequence of changes to bus monitoring arrangements in England.

It noted that the current system of a simple ‘window of tolerance’ may no longer be the best option, and has started a discussion about whether it remains fit for purpose in terms of how local bus service performance is measured.

“While our experience as regulators is informative, we recognise that industry and stakeholders need to contribute to this debate,” the report noted.

“As part of our new strategy, we will review and modernise the approach to performance measurement and issue updated guidance for TCs, stakeholders and industry.”

England TCs report
Once again, the report from the TCs covering England was combined into a collective view, covering trends throughout the country.

While the TCs were pleased with the take-up of brake-testers, resulting in 10,000 fewer failures for brake performance at annual tests than in 2013/14, brake failures ‘still dominate the top 10 reasons for MOT failure,’ with 22,000 failures in 2017/18.

Other common issues include accountants not realising that O-licences are non-transferable between sole traders and limited companies and transport managers not committing enough time to ensure compliant operation.

“Paying a transport manager £120 per month in cash is in effect paying a highly qualified person a lower hourly rate than a dog walker,” the report said.

“While we do not have many instances of maintenance paperwork being eaten by dogs (thankfully), we observe that those involved in using PMI sheets and driver defect reports would benefit from some more effective lessons on treating these documents with more care.

“Astonishingly, we still encounter licence holders who are running vehicles with digital tachographs but who do not have a company tachograph card or the ability to download drivers’ cards. It is difficult to comprehend how any operator or transport manager can expect to run a compliant and effective vehicle operation without access to this data.

“Having said that, there are operators who do download the required data but do absolutely nothing with the information. We have even seen these reports falsified.

“Being honest and transparent is the only approach operators should take. We want licence holders to come clean about their failings rather than try to make it look like things were done properly. The consequences of falsifying paperwork are, inevitably, much worse.”

The report highlighted the unacceptable number of bridge strike incidents seen over the year.

“Disappointingly, thorough risk-based route planning seems to be a responsibility which operators are leaving to drivers,” the report said. “We have seen instances of drivers not being given conversion charts and also being left to plan routes without access to information that would identify the location of low bridges.

“It is time for operators to treat this seriously and take responsibility, not just leave it to drivers.”

Lastly, the TCs identified an issue relating to restricted O-licences in the PSV industry, with regards to the main occupation test, which was leading to unfair competition.

A pilot programme was carried out in 2018 to investigate anecdotal concerns about the prevalence of restricted PSV operators who no longer have a main occupation other than their minibus work. Early indications are ‘a significant number’ of licence holders no longer satisfy the criterion.

“The pilot, conducted in the North East and North West of England where there is a high proportion of this type of licence, shows that we need to review the status of PSV restricted licences,” the report said.

“Restricted PSV licence holders who cannot provide satisfactory evidence of their main occupation should face regulatory action and need to apply for a standard licence if they wish to continue operating fairly. We are also looking to introduce main occupation checks as part of the O-licence five-yearly continuation process for restricted operators, mirroring the financial declarations already in place.

“Additionally, opportunities to review main occupation evidence will be taken during routine interactions with operators, such as when a licence is varied or when regulatory action is proposed.”

The TC for Scotland
TC for Scotland, Claire Gilmore, made her first report since taking over the role from Joan Aitken in February 2019.

Thanking the various stakeholders who have helped her settle into the role, Claire in particular drew on the assistance received through a positive working relationship with Bus Users Scotland: “I have read with interest the reports that they provide in relation to registered services. I am concerned by the incidences of early running which I have seen. They are too frequent.

“Passengers are entitled to expect that a registered service will arrive to pick them up at the allotted time for it is what the operator has pledged to do. I will continue to monitor this closely. I expect operators who become aware of drivers running early on any of their services to take swift and effective action.

“The issue of early running has already featured, along with drivers’ hours offences, speeding and mobile phone use, amongst the disciplinary matters which I have considered at driver conduct hearings.

“There is, nevertheless, a quid pro quo. I have been concerned by reports that facilities for drivers, particularly those driving long distances, are not all that they should be. I am told that drivers are, at times, being denied the use of facilities at designated stops and that proper rest facilities are not made available to them in the course of their work. Such treatment is unacceptable. Drivers, like all other workers, are entitled to safe and adequate facilities for rest and refreshment in the course of their duties. These are matters of prime importance, both in terms of personal dignity, and road safety.”

Nick Jones’ outgoing report
Nick Jones delivered his final annual report ahead of his compulsory retirement by reason of age before his 66th birthday.

He was positive about upcoming improvements to the provisions available to the TC office in Wales, stating that current arrangements do not provide adequate accommodation for PIs and driver conduct hearings. However, he did state: “A long-standing lack of support staff in Wales (with dedicated office facilities) has rendered me far less able to achieve what I might ordinarily have done before my retirement.”

Considering his career, he added: “I reflect that it has been a tremendously rewarding experience and a great pleasure to work with the many good operators and drivers in the industry. Likewise, I reflect positively on what has been achieved in necessarily addressing those who fail to meet required standards.

“I go on to record that when first appointed as a TC the relationship between TCs and DfT was difficult. It is now exponentially better, probably as good as it has ever been.”

Nick also thanked the commercial drivers he has dealt with over his career: “The overwhelming majority of drivers of commercial vehicles undertake their tasks admirably. Not only do they drive safely, they also dutifully perform their pre-driving checks – the most fundamental building blocks for safe, compliant operations. Ultimately it is the professional commercial drivers who the ordinary public see as the face of the commercial vehicle industry; as such they should be thanked for what they do and nurtured by the businesses which employ them.”

To read the report in full, visit